Facebook Crisis Communications

facebook crisis communications hurricane
Organizations of all kinds need to prepare for crises, whether it be a product recall, a natural disaster or a political issue. Crisis communicators often recommend establishing “dark” sites that are not published to the web, but that can be quickly made public in the event of, well… an event.

One really easy way to do this is through Facebook. As I’ve detailed here, Facebook has three main types of free groups: open, closed, and secret.

You can prepare for events you expect to happen eventually by establishing a secret group in Facebook for crisis communications. For example, a local government agency in southern Florida could create a secret group “Fort Lauderdale Hurricane Information,” and pre-populate it with information from its pre-written evacuation plan.

When Amos, or Bob, or Carla, or Doug or whomever starts heading toward the community, they could simply update the information to reflect current reality and change the status to “Public” and it’s instantly available to anyone. Then place a link to the Facebook group from the organization’s main page to send people there for news updates and discussion. And you can establish a few administrators in advance, too.

For example, you can join my Facebook group called Social Network Options for Organizations by clicking this link. And you can “friend” me by clicking this one.
Groups like this will form in the aftermath of tragedies and crises, as we have seen with this group spontaneously created about the 35W bridge collapse. (In less than six days it’s gotten more than 10,000 members.) And in reality, it’s incredibly easy to create new groups in Facebook, so you may not want to pre-create a group for everything. That way you can name the group more definitively, e.g. with the hurricane’s name.

But what you should definitely do is practice setting up Facebook groups, so that as you develop your crisis communications plan you know exactly what settings you want. For example:

  • Do you want a discussion board?
  • Do you want to enable the Wall?
  • Will you have photos and videos on the site? If so, will you let users upload theirs, or only Administrators.

Then your crisis communications plan could include step-by-step instructions so you can create the new group within minutes when the crisis happens.

Possible arguments against this approach are that Facebook is a “walled garden” and that the information isn’t broadly available on the web. Someone has said it’s a walled garden with a really big gate, but I prefer the analogy of a garden that is ever expanding (by a million-plus members a week), with a six-inch wall. Anyone with an email address can join Facebook in just a few minutes, and once they’ve done that, it takes just seconds to join a particular group.

When you form a new group, for instance, you could send an email to your constituent groups that includes the link to the group. If they are in Facebook already, joining will take seconds. If they’re not, they can sign up with basic information in minutes.
The other reality is that for major public events, groups will form in Facebook. Wouldn’t you rather have the discussion about your company or government unit starting in a group that you form and promote, instead of possibly one formed by an antagonist? You can’t stop those groups from forming, but if you create a group yourself and promote it well, it will be the most relevant by number of users, and likely will have the critical mass to be “the” place people go for news, updates and discussion.

You won’t control the discussion, but at least you will have earned the right to participate. And as the administrator of the group, if you need to get a message to everyone who has joined, you can hit the “Message All Members” link and send an email to everyone who has joined. If someone else has formed the group, you don’t have that option.

Update: In the comments below and on their blogs, Kip Havel and Richard Stacy suggest blogs as an alternative to Facebook groups.

I agree blogs are another good choice for crisis communications. You could do the same thing with wordpress.com, for instance, starting it as an “only people I invite” blog, and then changing it to “public” status when the crisis hits. The advantage is it’s Google-able; one disadvantage is you don’t have the ability to  proactively send a message to an interested group of members…at least not as easily as you can with Facebook.

And of course you could do both: a Facebook group (because some people will look there), but with the associated URL being to your WordPress.com blog. Maybe Blogger also has this kind of “secret” blog feature that can be later opened up; I’m just more familiar with WordPress.

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Author: Lee Aase

Married father of six and grandfather of seven, and the Chancellor of SMUG - Social Media University, Global. By day I'm the Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Whatever I say here is my personal opinion, and doesn't reflect the positions of my employer.

15 thoughts on “Facebook Crisis Communications”

  1. Very interesting post, Lee! And WordPress.com now lets you go well beyond just linking to your blog there from a Facebook group. A new app, called simply WordPress, lets you easily integrate both Facebook and a WordPress.com blog.

    I haven’t played with it yet, so I’m not sure how suitable it is for this purpose. Given the app’s feature set and its focus on an individual profile and minifeed, it might be most appropriate if you plan to create a Facebook account specifically to deal with potential crises. More info at the WordPress.com blog post announcing the app.

    Thanks again for the post. I hope it’s widely read.

  2. Thanks, Rob. Yes, I’ve used the WordPress app in Facebook on my personal profile, and I really like it. I don’t think it would work the best for a group like this to try to incorporate from WordPress.com into Facebook, because if you had a Facebook profile set up for a potential crisis, it would be discoverable through day-to-day searching that people are doing, while a secret group could remain “dark” until you need to throw the switch.

    The WordPress app is really great, though. It’s nice that I can write new posts on my WordPress.com blog and they are automatically fed into my Facebook profile, which keeps my Facebook profile fresher, too.

  3. Lee,

    Regarding the issue of “competing” social networking venues being set up in the event of a disaster or emergency: while I agree that there are many good arguments for establishing a single, standardized system for certain applications (e.g., for reporting “i’m safe”) I am beginning to believe that we should never put our eggs into one basket.

    Just as first responders don’t necessarily have to have identical radios to accomplish “interoperability,” we should expect that some public communication channels just won’t work or will be degraded during an event and should plan accordingly. Because of that, we should expect that there will be multiple channels used for social networking, and we should plan accordingly.

    Dennis

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